Back to School #35: Sixteen Candles (dir by John Hughes)


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The 80s are often considered to be the golden age of teen films and that’s largely due to the work of one man, John Hughes. A  former advertising copywriter and a contributor to National Lampoon, Hughes went on to direct and write some of the most influential films of all time.  By deftly mixing comedy with themes of alienation, rebellion, and youthful disillusionment, Hughes changed the way that teenagers were portrayed onscreen and his influence is still felt today, in everything from Juno to Superbad to Easy A to … well, just about any other recent film starring Michael Cera.

(Okay, I know Michael Cera was not in Easy A but it really seems like he should have been…)

Hughes made his directorial debut in 1984 with Sixteen Candles, a comedy about love, birthdays, and weddings set in an upper class suburb of Chicago.  (I have to admit that, much like with My Tutor, one reason that I like this film is because I like seeing where everyone lives.)  As the film opens, Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is not having a particularly good time.  For one thing, everyone is so wrapped up in her older sister’s wedding that they’ve forgotten about Sam’s sixteenth birthday.  Her house is full of wacky grandparents (and one foreign exchange student named Long Duk Dong).  At school, Sam is in the unenviable position of being neither popular enough nor unpopular enough to actually be noticed by anyone.  Instead, she’s just there.  She has a crush on Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) but is convinced that Jake doesn’t even know that she’s alive.  (Of course, she’s wrong.)  She’s also being pursued by a character who is occasionally referred to as being “Farmer Ted” but is listed in the end credits as simply being “The Geek.”  (I’m going to refer to him as “The Geek” because Farmer Ted makes him sound like he should be killing people in a SyFy original movie.)  As played by Anthony Michael Hall, The Geek isn’t your typical high movie nerd.  Instead, he’s the outspoken and confident king of the nerds and he’s proud of it.  The Geek is madly pursuing Sam and has made a bet with his friends (including John Cusack) that he’ll not only have sex with her but he’ll prove it by bringing them her panties.  (BAD GEEK! — but fortunately, Anthony Michael Hall gives such an energetic and likable performance that you can forgive him.)

There are parts of Sixteen Candles that have not aged well.  And, by that, I’m mostly referring to the character of Long Duk Dong, who is so well-played by Gedde Watanabe that it’s tempting to ignore just how racist the portrayal of his character really is.  As well, I know that a lot of my more erudite friends would probably only briefly look away from their copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The 21st Century, just long enough to pronounce that Sixteen Candles is essentially a film about “first world problems.”

Well, maybe it is.  But I don’t care.  I like it.  John Hughes’s script is full of classic lines and funny characters, Anthony Michael Hall is likable as the Geek, and, as played by Michael Schoeffling, Jake Ryan is the epitome of the perfect guy.  If your heart doesn’t melt a little when he says that he’s looking for true love, it can only be because you don’t have a heart.  And finally, Sam remains a character that we can all relate to.  As played by Molly Ringwald, she’s the perfect sullen everygirl.

Of course, an undeniable part of the charm of Sixteen Candles comes from the fact that it really is a film that could not be made today.  Sixteen Candles may take place in an entirely different world from films like The Pom Pom Girls and Suburbia, but it’s still just as much of a time capsule.

First off, there’s about a thousand apps out there that will make sure that you never forget anyone’s birthday.  If the film was made today, Sam’s parents would have checked their e-mail and found a message from Facebook telling them that “Samantha Baker has a birthday this week!”  They could have just written “Happy birthday to a wonderful daughter!” on her wall and half of Sam’s problems would have been solved.

Secondly, it’s doubtful that, if the film was made today, the Geek would be able to get away with just showing everyone’s Sam’s panties.  Instead, they would have demanded nude pics, which would have then been posted on the internet for the entire world to see.  And let’s be honest: “Can I send my friends naked pics of you?” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?”

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*And, no, I haven’t read Piketty’s tome.  I have a life to live and movies to see.